ST. LEONARD – The USS Tulip was chugging up the Potomac River on Nov. 11, 1864, heading to the Washington Navy Yard where her faulty starboard boiler was to be repaired.
But Capt. William H. Smith, afraid that the slow-moving Tulip would be an easy target for Confederate batteries on the Virginia shore, disobeyed commands and ordered the ship’s defunct boiler to be fired up.
The rest, as they say, is history.
A deadly explosion tore through the Tulip, sending the Union gunship and most of her crew to the bottom of the Potomac off Virginia’s Coles Point, just upriver from Piney Point in St. Mary’s County.
She has laid there since. But she did not rest in peace.
When archeologists returned to the USS Tulip in 1994 to study it and try to get some clues into life on board a Civil War gunship, many of the Tulip’s artifacts were gone, stripped by divers for their value as collectibles.
“Normally, an archeological excavation of a shipwreck yields clues concerning life on board among other things,” said Bruce Thompson, assistant state underwater archeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust.
“But due to the number of artifacts that were taken away prior to that by divers, in the case of Tulip we could only glean generalities,” said Thompson, who was part of the team that hoped to explore the ship. “Around 4,500 artifacts, we believe, were looted.”
The USS Tulip is just one example of the problem faced by the state’s underwater archeologists, who have cataloged more than 250 shipwrecks in state waters and believe there may be more than 1,000 total. The wrecks range from remnants of prehistoric canoes to Colonial merchant ships and Civil War gunboats like the Tulip.
Experts say the Tulip is the worst example of a shipwreck being plundered, but marine archeologists know of severe damage to several others, including the City of Annapolis, the New Jersey and the Columbus. All are merchant vessels that went down in the lower reaches of Maryland’s section of the Chesapeake Bay. With thousands of divers around the state and “far too lenient laws,” experts say it is not uncommon for ships to be plundered of artifacts by divers and treasure hunters.
“It’s sad, but today the law allows any person without a permit to collect up to five individual artifacts as long as it’s not a federal or state site,” said Susan Langley, state underwater archeologist at Maryland Historical Trust.
“So, if 10 people go down together on a site and they take the legal five artifacts each, it means that we have already lost 50 artifacts. This is a very, very weak law,” Langley said.
Experts would like the state to prohibit private individuals from taking anything off a shipwreck. The experts say it would be better to leave the ship and its artifacts underwater than to bring it up piecemeal.
But treasure hunters in the state argue that their hobby benefits a greater audience, by salvaging lost bits of history and making them available to a modern audience. Taking away their excavation rights would not only deprive them of their hobby, they said, but would limit the information that underwater artifacts reveal, concentrating it in the hands of the government.
“If just the state and federal authorities have the rights to excavate these shipwrecks, they would keep the artifacts in some warehouse of theirs and nobody would get to see them,” said William Anderson, a member of the Chesapeake Society of Treasure Hunters in Annapolis.
“When we take these artifacts, we don’t take them to make a profit but we share it with the public and allow them also to get a feel of these things,” Anderson said. “The state would never do that. But we enjoy doing that.
“It’s fun, it’s our hobby and they should not take away this right from us,” Anderson said.
Langley disagrees. Without an intact archeological record, it will be difficult to answer questions about shipwrecks like the USS Tulip: What was life like on board the vessel? What kind of lives did people lead during that time? Was there anything unique about the ship?
“We want the artifacts and wrecks to remain in the water,” she said. “We don’t have the money nor the technology to excavate and preserve what’s there underneath. But, we want to leave some of these sites untouched for the future, where with better technology we can excavate and preserve these artifacts.
“What divers and treasure hunters should understand is that by just excavating a little, they are destroying the sites,” she said. “Please leave them alone, so that one day with money and technology we can have answers to many of the unanswered questions.”